There are many famous names in Mason County’s history books, but just as many are often overlooked. Of them all, the one most deserving of recognition is likely Dr. Jesse Bennett.
Bennett was born in Frankfort, Penn. on July 10, 1769 to an upper-class family. Because of this, he began school at the age of 4, and continued his education until he finally earned his Bachelor’s Degree from Philadelphia College. After this, he turned his attention towards medicine, and studied under Dr. Benjamin Rush, a professor at a medical college and later a signer of the Declaration of Independence. By the age of 21, he had earned the degree of Doctor of Medicine. Unwilling to compete with friends and colleagues, Bennett chose to practice elsewhere.
He soon found himself in Augusta County, Va., where he gained the acquaintance of Peter Hogg and his daughter, Elizabeth. Hogg was one of the original land grantees in Mason County, for his service in the French and Indian War. By the spring of 1793, he and Elizabeth were married, and they moved to Rockingham County. It was during their time here that Dr. Bennett performed his most important surgery.
On Jan. 14, 1794, his wife went into labor, and Dr. Bennett called upon Dr. A. Humphrey of Staunton to attend to his wife. It was decided that the baby could not be delivered naturally, and the two doctors determined that the only two options were a Cesarean Section or a craniotomy (removing part of the child’s skull). Because it was likely that someone would die either way, Dr. Humphrey refused to assist and stepped out. Elizabeth, believing that she would die anyhow, begged her husband to perform the C-section to save their child’s life. Reluctantly, Dr. Bennett gave his wife a large dose of laudanum (opium) and placed her on a table made from two barrels and some boards. He was assisted by Elizabeth’s sister Nancy, who held a candle for him, and two female slaves, who held his wife down. With a long slice, Dr. Bennett cut open his wife, removed the infant and his wife’s ovaries, and stitched up the wound with heavy linen. According to his sister-in-law, Bennett removed his wife’s ovaries so that “he’d not be subjected to such an ordeal again.” Within two months, Mrs. Bennett was fully healed, and her husband had officially performed the first successful C-section in the Americas. However, Dr. Bennett never publicized his success, thinking other doctors would never believe him and “damned if he’d give them a chance to call him a liar.” The only written reference was a notation referencing a procedure on E.B. on Jan. 14, 1794 where she was cured by March 1. Details of the surgery were collected by Dr. A.L. Knight of West Columbia in 1842 from two witnesses, Elizabeth’s sister and one of the female slaves.
For a short time after this, he served as a surgeon during the Whiskey Rebellion.
In 1797, the Bennetts moved to Mason County and settled on the land of Elizabeth’s father. Here, Dr. Bennett served as a major of the Mason County militia in 1804, and in 1805, he was approached by Aaron Burr and Harmon Blennerhassett, who tried to enlist Dr. Bennett’s help in a plan to overthrow the United States’ government. The doctor allegedly trusted Blennerhassett, but he was suspicious of Burr, and turned down their offer. After their meeting, he buried all of the militia’s weapons to keep them out of Burr’s hands. In 1808 and 1809, Bennett represented Mason County in the Virginia Legislature.
In 1812, he enlisted in the Mason County Riflemen as a surgeon and accompanied the unit to Fort Meigs. After this war, Dr. Bennett resumed his practice and work on his slave plantation above Point Pleasant. He died on July 22, 1842 (exactly 175 years ago), and was originally buried in the Bennett Cemetery on his property. However, he was exhumed in 1985 and reburied in Pioneer Cemetery.
Information from History of Mason County (1987), the Southern Historical Magazine, and numerous internet articles.
Chris Rizer is the president of the Mason County Historical and Preservation Society. More information on the organization found on Facebook at Mason County Historic Preservation. The next meeting of the Mason County Historical and Preservation Society will be held at the Robert C. Byrd Locks & Dam picnic shelters on Tuesday, July 25 at 6:30 p.m.